Why Senator Clinton should not play Lyndon Johnson to Senator Obama's Jack Kennedy
Memorial Day Weekend is descending upon us. In the frenzied atmosphere of this political season, it seems like a good chance to take a contemplative moment. I am using this one to share my reflections on the various problems with any suggestion that an Obama - Clinton ticket makes sense, either for the Democratic Party or for Senator Clinton. Now this, of course, is just my opinion. As of now, Senator Clinton seems uninterested in the role. She might ultimately decide to accept a position as Senator Obama's running mate. Senator Clinton is smart enough and politically savvy enough that if she makes that choice it will be based upon information and belief that I, your basic citizen-supporter of her candidacy, do not have.
From where I sit, I cannot think of a more cockamamie analogy or idea. Here's where the analogy's strengths begin and end: in order to bolster his appeal to a number of demographic groups not keen on him as president, John F. Kennedy Jr. held his nose and asked Lyndon Johnson to run on the ticket with him. And having Johnson on the ticket definitely helped Kennedy beat Nixon. So might it be with Senator Obama vis-a-vis Senator Clinton.
But was this good for the Democratic Party, or the country as a whole? Tragically, we will never know what would have happened had President Kennedy not been assassinated. All we can go upon is what happened to the Party and the country once Johnson took office upon that awful event.
Lyndon Johnson was an exceedingly complicated person, to say the least. In Congress, he, like Senator Edward Kennedy, worked ceaselessly for progressive causes of his day, paying particular attention to the then worse, now still present, problem of rural poverty in the United States of America. He was a complicated person, and a fine member of Congress.
Johnson wanted badly to be President. So, he accepted the vice-presidential slot, assuming it would be a springboard for an eventual candidacy, after President Kennedy served his full term or terms.
LBJ hated being vice-president. President Kennedy did not like him and did not count him as one of his inner circle. A vice-president in that position is worse than a ceremonial office holder. As a member of the president's administration, such a vice-president cannot criticize the president's policies nor can she or he strike out on his or her own initiative. Unless a president chooses to give the vice-president real power, the vice-president is totally hamstrung while in office.
I do not think this country can afford to have Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton hamstrung. We cannot even afford that risk, and we have no way of knowing whether Barack Obama would, were he president, give Senator Clinton real responsibility and real power.
Back to LBJ. He did indeed become president, not via election, but as a result of the Constitution's mechanism for replacing a sitting president who cannot continue in office. The year was 1963. The Vietnam War was underway. President Johnson wanted to concentrate on domestic affairs, to build what he called the Great Society. To his credit, he did make some progress on this front, especially with regard to protecting the franchise when he backed and signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But like President Kennedy before him, President Johnson devoted himself, right from the get go, to continuing American involvement in Vietnam. When he defeated Republican Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential race, LBJ took it as a mandate for both the Great Society and the continuation of the war in Vietnam.
This was the beginning of the end for President Johnson. Through some combination of political forces and his own personality, he became obsessed with winning the war in Vietnam, just as rank and file Democrats were becoming increasingly disillusioned with the conduct of the war and suspicious of the validity for the reasons for the U.S. presence in the first place. By the end of 1967 the Johnson administration was in total shambles. Johnson could not pay for the Great Society initiatives he promised because he burned through money escalating American involvement in Vietnam. Public dissatisfaction with the war and with Johnson mounted.
This chaotic state of affairs led to an unprecedented challenge to a sitting Democratic President. Other Democrats declared their own candidacies for the nomination and the presidency in 1968. And on March 31, 1968, LBJ withdrew from the race, realizing that he had lost the country's confidence in his ability to govern. He stepped down from office in 1969, handing over the presidency to Republican Richard Milhous Nixon, who defeated Hubert Humphrey handily in the 1968 election and devastated George McGovern in the 1972 election. Nixon then brought upon the country the catastrophe of Watergate and southeast Asia the horrors of extending American bombing into Cambodia.
Senator Clinton is way too smart to end up following in Lyndon Johnson's footsteps. She may share his genuine concern for the poor and for the disenfranchised. But she is no war-monger. She has consistently objected to the current administration's escalation of an unpopular and unsatisfactorily conducted war. Were she president, she would not continue U.S. involvement in Iraq. Furthermore, Senator Clinton fully understands that while we must have a sound military and practice effective foreign affairs, if we spend all our money on warfare we won't have have any left for important domestic primaries.
Both as a human being and as a politician, Senator Clinton seems obviously far more balanced than LBJ ever was.
Since I fully expect Senator Clinton to become this country's next President, by virtue of being elected to the office this fall, I am most definitely thankful that Hillary Rodham Clinton is no Lyndon Baines Johnson.